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Tim Challies Christian Blog and Commentary

When it comes to prayer, there are few people I would rather learn from than Joel Beeke. He has spent most of his life as a student of the Puritans and has often written about their commitment to prayer and their practice of it. In a new little booklet titled Piety: The Heartbeat of Reformed Theology, he offers a series of extremely helpful tips for prayer. Here is what he says:

Prayer and work belong together. They are like two oars that, when used together, keep a rowboat moving forward. If you use only one oar—praying without working or working without praying—you will row in circles.

Piety and prayer are closely related because prayer is the primary means of maintaining communion with God. Here are five important guidelines the Puritans offer about praying:

  1. Give priority to prayer. Prayer is the first and most important thing you are called to do. “You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed,” John Bunyan writes. “Pray often, for prayer is a shield to the soul, a sacrifice to God, and a scourge to Satan.”
  2. Give yourself—not just your time—to prayer. Remember that prayer is not an appendix to your life and your work, it is your life—your real, spiritual life—and your work. Prayer is the thermometer of the soul.
  3. Give room to prayer. The Puritans did this in three ways. First, they had real prayer closets—rooms or small spaces where they habitually met with God. When one of Thomas Shepard’s parishoners showed him a floor plan of the new house he hoped to build, Shephard noticed that there was no prayer room and lamented that homes without prayer rooms would be the downfall of the church and society. Second, block out stated times for prayer in your daily life. The Puritans did this every morning and evening. Third, between those stated times of prayer, commit yourself to pray in response to the least impulse to do so. That will help you develop the “habit” of praying so that you will pray your way through the day without ceasing. Remember that conversing with God through Christ is our most effective way of bringing glory to God and of having a ready antidote to ward off all kinds of spiritual diseases.
  4. Give the Word to prayer. The way to pray, said the Puritans, is to bring God his own Word. That can be done in two ways. First, pray with Scripture. God is tender of his own handwriting. Take his promises, turn them inside out, and send them back up to God by prayer, pleading with him to do as he has said. Second, pray through Scripture. Pray over each thought in a specific Scripture verse.
  5. Give theocentricity to prayer. Pour out your heart to your heavenly Father. Plead on the basis of Christ’s intercessions. Plead to God with the groanings of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:26). Recognize that true prayer is a gift of the Father, who gives it through the Son and works it within you by the Spirit who, in turn, enables it to ascend back to the Son, who sanctifies it and presents it acceptable to the Father. Prayer is thus a theocentric chain, if you will—moving from the Father through the Son by the Spirit back to the Son and the Father.

Genuine piety calls for well-planned, hard, and sweat-inducing prayer and work, the Puritans said. Careful planning as to how you are going to live for the Lord is necessary if you want to achieve much of abiding value for him. Yet the Puritans were not self-reliant. They understood that daily living for a Christian must go something like this:

  1. Look ahead and see what you have to do.
  2. Go to the Lord in prayer and say, “Lord, I do not have what it takes to do this; I need divine help.”
  3. Rely on the Lord to answer the prayer you have offered, then proceed expectantly to the task that lies before you.
  4. After completing the task, return to the Lord to thank him for the help he gave.
  5. Ask his forgiveness for all your failures and sins in the process, and ask for grace to fulfill your task more faithfully next time.

The Puritan method of daily piety includes earnest prayer and hard work without self-reliance; all the exertion of energy is done by faith. By grace, exercising piety is both faithful effort and fruitful effort.

I was actually just starting to feel a little sorry for myself. I was on the sidelines at my daughter’s soccer game while a group of parents stood behind me laughing and chatting. As the game went on they talked and talked about all the great things they’ve done, the homes they’ve bought, the vacations they’ve enjoyed, the lessons their kids have taken. One even talked about his bright yellow Corvette that was parked conspicuously nearby.

Their lives sounded pretty good. They sounded better than mine, if I was comparing. I thought about what it must cost to take that annual trip to the Caribbean. I thought about what it must cost to get that new kitchen. I thought about the difference between a second car that is a sensible, family-friendly sedan and a second car that is built purely for thrills. And for a moment I wanted it. I wanted it all.

But my pathetic little pity party lasted only a moment before it struck me: The cost of all of that stuff is the cost of generosity. At least, it is for most of the people I know. Those donations to the church, those checks to the missionaries, those gifts to the ministries, those bills slipped discreetly to the person in need—tally them up and they could equal some extra vacations. Put them together and you could probably upgrade your kitchen this year instead of five years from now, or you could go up a model or two on the second vehicle. The Christians I know choose to downgrade their lifestyle in order to upgrade their giving.

And this, I think, is the enduring power and comfort of what Randy Alcorn calls the treasure principle: You can’t take it with you—but you can send it on ahead. The money isn’t gone. The money isn’t misused. It’s simply been redirected into a different kind of investment. “If we give instead of keep, if we invest in the eternal instead of in the temporal, we store up treasures in heaven that will never stop paying dividends. Whatever we store up on earth will be left behind when we leave. Whatever treasures we store up in heaven will be waiting for us when we arrive.” We find when we commit to this kind of generosity that there is greater joy both now and then.

You can’t keep up with the Joneses when you’re committed to radical generosity, and I think that’s exactly how God intends it.

I recently sat with a group of young adults, men and women in their late teens and early twenties, and we spoke about singleness, dating, and courtship. Eventually the conversation advanced to marriage and to both the joys and the difficulties of marriage. We realized together that as these young adults are considering relationships and begin to pursue marriage, they are wondering how they can divorce-proof their marriages. Many of them have grown up surrounded by divorce and its effects. Some are afraid of commitment because they are afraid they may not be able to keep that commitment.

One young man asked how to ensure that a couple does not bring into their marriage a seed that could bloom into divorce. And it did not take me more than a moment to realize that in my marriage and in your marriage and in every marriage, there is already the seed of divorce. In every marriage is an issue, a belief, a habit, a heart idolatry—indeed, many of them—that can lead easily and naturally to the complete destruction of the union. The world, the flesh, and the devil are all committed to the destruction of marriage, and each of those enemies brings its own evil seeds. The question is not whether those seeds are or will be present in a marriage, but what we will do with them.

It may be that in your marriage, you have allowed the seed of divorce to grow. Perhaps it has already put down roots and is digging in. Maybe it has already poked its head through the soil and begun to grow to full bloom. Do not despair. There is still hope for your marriage. A marriage is not ruined by the presence of such seeds but by accepting, ignoring, or embracing them.

The very same seeds that may lead to destruction may also lead to increased strength and growth. Though powerful forces are arrayed against marriage, God is the creator of marriage, and He is far more committed to its growth than Satan is to its destruction.

Each of those seeds that may lead to divorce represents an opportunity for health. Each is an opportunity for a couple to have open and honest discussion, to identify these seeds, to talk about them, and to commit to stand firmly against them. Each represents a matter to take to the Lord together in prayer, to seek God’s strength and protection. And, of course, each represents an area in which the Bible can and must speak. Those seeds of error are countered and overcome by the truth of Scripture.

Stuart Scott says it well: “The more each mind is renewed (changed) by the Scripture, the more similarly a couple will think (Rom. 12:2). One of the worst things a couple can do is work to change one another into each other’s likeness. They are to be changed, rather, into Christ’s likeness.” And they are changed by going together to God’s Word day by day, week by week, and year after year.

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